All posts for the month July, 2012

Openings and Voices 2

Published July 31, 2012 by Elsa Pla

The exercise I’m working on all this week:

Analyze and emulate the opening (first lines or paragraphs) of several stories or novels, each written by a different favorite author. This exercise will help you practice how to hook your reader, but most importantly, it will help you discover and develop your voice through the study of a favorite author’s voice. If you love the voice of an author, it’s probably because you identify with his/her voice; that is, your voices have something in common. This exercise will help you discover those commonalities.

Today’s author is Neil Gaiman, and the novel is The Graveyard Book.

My attempt:

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a key.

The key was long and ancient; its bow was oddly ornate. It was made of the purest silver, but you would not know that, not at first, for with time it had become heavily tarnished and no one had bothered to polish it. 

The key had done what it was made to do. It had opened the forbidden room, and now both the bow and the blade were slowly undergoing a change. The key was turning blood-red.

The door was still open, just a little, where the girl had slipped in and — after a few moments of horrified shock — had slipped out. A putrid stench had been released from the room and was now wafting like a wandering ghost down the dimly lit hallway.

The girl came to her senses and shut the door. With her left hand she pulled a dainty handkerchief from the pocket of her white gown, and with it she covered her nose and mouth. With her right she locked the room. She stood there trembling, trying to process what she had just seen. Five or six young women, all bloodied and dead, all hanging like puppets from hooks on the walls, each wearing a wedding dress not unlike her own.

She dropped the key in sudden terror. It felt hot and it shone with an unearthly red glow.

Wow, this is so great. Try it! 🙂

Openings and Voices

Published July 30, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Voice: A writer’s unique, personal voice results from the combination of the writer’s style (the way the writer uses words), tone (the writer’s attitude toward the subject matter), and personality.

My daughter shared with me an excellent book that contains writing prompts, quotes, and exercises: Write Starts by Hal Zina Bennett. Today’s exercise is an adaptation of “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night — On the importance of good opening lines” on page 163.


Analyze and emulate the opening (first lines or paragraphs) of several stories or novels, each written by a different favorite author. This exercise will help you practice how to hook your reader, but most importantly, it will help you discover and develop your voice through the study of a favorite author’s voice. If you love the voice of an author, it’s probably because you identify with his/her voice; that is, your voices have something in common. This exercise will help you discover those commonalities.

I’ll be working on this exercise all week, and then I’ll reflect on the products. My first author is Roald Dahl and the novel is James and the Giant Peach.

My attempt:

Until she was eleven years old, Jamie Jones had led a wonderful life. Her loving parents were wealthy and loved to travel, so Jamie had visited many interesting and exotic places in her short life. She had even been on a safari in Africa, where she had ridden on the back of a ghost-white elephant. Jamie had moved with her parents to Denver, Colorado, to a lovely Victorian house that stood in front of a well-kept park full of evergreens, rabbits, and squirrels. She was looking forward to starting sixth grade at Lincoln Middle School, a school that was fairly close to her new home and was full of smiling children.

But that summer, a terrible thing happened. She and her parents were touring the Grand Canyon, taking photographs with their brand-new 30mm camera from the edge of a spectacular cliff, when, all of a sudden, the ground gave way under their feet, and they found themselves plummeting down 5,000 feet toward the Colorado River.  “Aaaaaah!” all three of them screamed.

A rescue team found Jamie hours later, clinging to an outcropping with one hand, clutching the camera with the other, too shocked to even call for help.  Her parents had not been so fortunate.  They were found three days later many miles downriver, floating face down in a quiet, gentle stream, their hands tightly clasped together.

This is a great exercise. Try it! 🙂

Feeding the Muse

Published July 27, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Today’s exercise is about going out to gather thoughts and ideas that will inspire our writing.

My favorite day of the DWP Summer Institute was the day we visited the Denver Art Museum. We spent the morning observing artwork and writing. I found it to be an excellent writing exercise — one I intend to keep practicing as much as possible. Visiting museums and such is a great way to “feed the muse,” as Ray Bradbury used to say. The important thing to remember is to write down your thoughts then and there or as soon as possible.

Here’s some of the stuff I wrote during my visit to the Denver Art Museum:

1- Questions:

What are we searching for when we contemplate a river?

How do we get lost in a world so small?

How do we get found in a world so crowded?

2- Reflections:

-After looking at “Nocturne Fifty” by Keith Hale (a painting of the night sky over a city’s skyline):

If it were not for the velvety darkness, we would not appreciate the jeweled stars.

-After looking at a series of photographs of young women:

I want to see photographs that showcase the beauty of age, of mottled skin and wrinkles, of a life lived—photographs that evoke transcendence.

-Other reflections:

I study the faces in paintings and see questions. I realize that those questions reflect my own.

Details reveal the essence of things.

3- A poem:

Inspired by the painting “Release Your Plans” by Daniel Sprick:

release your plans

from the ligatures of life

the miniature tree

the white sheets

the heavy curtains

the final grin

capture your dreams

before they float away

the rose and the dish

the soap bubble

the motes of dust

collect the broken pieces

and treasure each bit

eggshell, glass, bone

put your glasses on

and see what I mean


Last week I visited the DaVinci Machines Exhibition at the Denver’s 16th Street Mall, and yesterday I went to the Denver Botanic Gardens. I took photographs and jotted down thoughts.

I ended up writing two haiku, each about a significant moment at one of these places:

A violin boy

casts a spell on the street mall.

Who’ll catch the magic?

The noon sun ignites

the colors of the lily.

The petals blind me.

The point is: Leave the house, visit an intellectually stimulating place, and “feed your muse.” 🙂

I’ll post again on Monday. Have a nice weekend!

Developing Muscle

Published July 26, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Ursula Le Guin compares adjectives and adverbs to candy and warns us to not overindulge:

“I would recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.”

The following exercise is from her book Steering the Craft:

“Write a paragraph to a page of descriptive narrative prose without adjectives or adverbs. No dialogue.”

[Then, analyze the result:] “Would the piece be improved by the addition of an adjective or adverb here and there, or is it satisfactory without?”

The purpose of this exercise is to practice using strong nouns and verbs. That way, our use of adjectives and adverbs becomes intentional and artful.

My attempt:

The soldier marched to the top of the hill and observed the town below through binoculars. The sun was rising and a mist hung over the tops of the buildings. He listened and scanned the scene for evidence of life: people on their way to work, vehicles, smoke wafting out of chimneys, lights. A bird was chirping. Other than that, he didn’t see or hear a thing.

He waited for the sun to light the streets before descending the hill and entering the town. He stole through the stillness and the silence and stopped in front of a church.  Someone had boarded up the windows and bolted the doors. The soldier cursed. The fools had abandoned the town without setting the portal on fire. Now he would have to do it.

Okay, that was difficult. Now you try it! 🙂

The Sentence Prompt

Published July 25, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Developing Style

Here’s another fun exercise from the DWP Summer Institute:

Write a short scene that includes the sentence: “This time it was a woman I had seen in the city.”

(A similar exercise: Select a sentence from a favorite story or novel. Write a short scene that includes the sentence you chose.)

My attempt:

Pet’s Cemetery

Dead bodies kept showing up on my doorstep. This time it was a woman I had seen in the city. She had sat by me in the subway, and I remembered her because when I had entered the train car, she had stopped reading her newspaper and had looked up at me and smiled. She certainly wasn’t smiling now.

I dashed right back into the house and threw up in the kitchen sink. Kitty kept bringing me all these victims like presents, and I was at a loss of what to do to stop it. I knew that if I tried to confront her, my dead body could end up as a gift in somebody else’s doorstep.

But I had to do something about it, and soon.

I rinsed the sink and forced myself to get the wheelbarrow. One more grave to dig in the back yard. Soon there would be no room left.


Creepy, I know! Now you try it. 🙂

Mining Your Surroundings

Published July 24, 2012 by Elsa Pla

The Simile

Today’s exercise is a simple and fun way to mine your surroundings for ideas.

First, a lovely and fitting quote by Ray Bradbury:

“Ideas lie everywhere, like apples falling and melting in the grass.”

Exercise: Take a moment to observe your surroundings. Write five unrelated sentences, each containing a creative simile inspired by your observations.

My attempt (I underlined the subject that inspired the simile):

1- The swarm of bees buzzed and circled like questions.

2- The black cat glared at me, her yellow-green eyes glowing like exit signs.

3- The wizard got up, his old bones creaking like a rocking chair.

4- The old woman was full of secrets like an ancient stoppered bottle.

5- Like a baby-blue blanket of velvety fleece, the summer sky stretched over the golden meadow.

I just love to play with words! Now you try it! 🙂

Another Found Poem

Published July 23, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Here’s a fun way of composing a “found” poem:

Visit a bookstore or library and sit in front of a bookshelf in the fiction section. Write down a list of interesting titles. Use the list to compose a poem.

Here’s my attempt:

Titles from the Fiction Section of a Bookstore:

This is where I leave you

without a backwards glance –

this vacant paradise:

a hole in the ground owned by a liar,

the kid–

the lucky one–

half asleep in frog pajamas.

Why did I ever

set this house on fire?

Heartbroken in Denver

Published July 20, 2012 by Elsa Pla
I’m trying to process the senseless violence and loss of life in Aurora, CO, about 15 minutes from where I live. I’ll resume my writing exercises on Monday. Today I’ll be watching the news and praying for all those affected by the tragedy.

Tell Me What You Feel

Published July 19, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Describing Emotion

Today’s exercise is similar to yesterday’s.

Write a paragraph where you talk about a character’s feeling or feelings by describing the emotion(s) being experienced by him or her.

Here’s how one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, does it:

“Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life…You give them a piece of you. They didn’t ask for it. They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness. So simple a phrase like ‘maybe we should be just friends’ turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It’s a soul-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love.” Neil Gaiman, The Sandman

Here’s my attempt:

Whoever said time heals all wounds, lied. When someone you truly love — someone you allowed in your heart and life forever — stops loving you, it’s as if you become shipwrecked on a desert island… and all the memories – all the conversations, the time spent together, the moments that meant so much – all that made up the you and I of that sacred oneness – transforms into a million needles embedded deep in your heart, and you are left there to spend the rest of your life trying to pull them out, or waiting for them to travel to the surface and fall out, or hoping they will dissolve with time. And some disappear, but not all. And when you least expect it, a dream, a song, a scent, wakes up the familiar pain, and you miss him or her all over again, and it hurts like crazy, and you cry and cry like a baby, not just with your tear ducts, but with your insides, and your head throbs so much it’ll surely explode, and you curl up on the ground, resigned to the fact that this time you will die  – except you don’t. And so it goes, this pathetic life on the island of lost love, where pain like needles returns with the tides. Whoever said time heals all wounds, lied.


Depressing, again! No worries, tomorrow I’ll share a lighter exercise.

Show, Don’t Tell

Published July 18, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Today’s challenge is to show a character’s feelings without mentioning the emotion the character is experiencing.

My attempt:

Ellen closed her eyes after reading the telegram. James was dead. He would not come back to her like he promised. She would never see him or touch him again. She felt her mind collapsing into the familiar black abyss. It swallowed her up mercilessly and sent her falling, falling into its cold darkness. Her heart uttered a silent scream of recognition. She knew that from that moment on, that bottomless, soundless hole would be her dwelling place. This time there would be no escape. She opened her eyes and, trembling like a captured bird, handed the crumpled yellow paper to the gray man standing in front of her.

Okay, that was depressing. Want to give it a try?